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Interview with Dorothea Jensen, author of Liberty-Loving Lafayette: How ‘America’s Favorite Fighting Frenchman’ Helped Win Our Independence

If you missed my review of Liberty-Loving Lafayette last week, please do check out this fun way for kids to learn some U.S. history.

Today, we have a treat for readers and writers with an interview. Dorothea Jensen has graciously answered some questions about her love of Lafayette and her writing inspirations and advice.

Please give her a warm welcome, and do ask your own questions in the comments.

Why such an interest in Lafayette? What does he represent/mean to you?

I have always been interested in history. During the Revolutionary War Bicentennial, my husband and I happened to move to a small town near Philadelphia. My kids learned to ride bikes at Valley Forge, and we often visited historical sites such as the Brandywine battlefield, Independence Hall, etc. When we later moved back to Minnesota, I wanted to keep this sense of history alive for my children, so I wrote a novel about the American Revolution for middle graders, The Riddle of Penncroft Farm. This has been in print since 1989.

Despite making up one story about our historic struggle, however, my interest in Lafayette himself was not sparked until 1997, when I happened to meet an elderly woman who told me that as a little girl her great grandmother had received a kiss (called a buss at the time) from Major General Lafayette in 1824 during his Farewell Tour. That buss had been passed down in her family to her. Of course, first I asked her to pass it along to me, and then I started reading about Lafayette. I’ve been reading and writing about him ever since.

First of all, I found out that Lafayette visited my town in 1825, and went right past my house. Then I learned more and about the man himself, and found him to be hugely appealing. Not only was he charming, idealistic, enthusiastic, and courageous, but he also had a wonderfully self-deprecating sense of humor. He also was a lifelong abolitionist. In addition to being an effective military leader (despite his youth and inexperience), his close friendship with and loyalty to George Washington helped the commander-in-chief weather some difficult challenges, such as the Conway Cabal. Finally, Lafayette played a huge role in gaining more support from France and making the French alliance work, which was certainly crucial to our final victory.

What inspired you to start writing? What motivates you to continue writing?

Like many authors, I was inspired to start writing because I was a passionate reader as a child. I read constantly and especially loved historical novels like The Witch of Blackbird Pond and The Sherwood Ring. I didn’t start trying to write for publication until I was in my mid-thirties and the last of my three children was born. I decided to write historical fiction such as that I loved as a kid. I have written two historical novels for MG/YA so far: The Riddle of Penncroft Farm and A Buss from Lafayette.

The Izzy Elves stories came about because of a childhood experience during which I thought Santa had been trapped under our Christmas tree. I decided create stories in rhyming verse based on the rhythm and rhyme scheme of Clement Moore’s 19th century classic, “A Visit from Saint Nicholas.” The main difference is that my eight elves—Bizzy, Blizzy, Dizzy, Fizzy, Frizzy, Quizzy, Tizzy, and Whizzy—are savvy in modern technology. I have written five Izzy Elf stories so far: Tizzy, the Christmas Shelf Elf; Blizzy, the Worrywart Elf; Dizzy, the Stowaway Elf; Frizzy, the S.A.D. Elf; and Bizzy, the Bossy Boots Elf.

Why I keep writing is simple. I do so because story ideas keep occurring to me and I just can’t ignore them. I have to write them down and see where they lead.

Give us an inside look at your writing routines. How do you start your day? How long do you write each day?

My routine varies hugely depending on the stage of composition. Sometimes I spend upwards of 10-12+ hours working. Of course, when I am writing historical fiction, I am doing research as well as writing, and these days I am also required to spend a great deal of precious time on promotion (not my favorite activity).

As time goes by and my memory becomes a bit less reliable, I am starting my days by composing lists of writing tasks and goals to focus on.

Do you listen to music while you’re writing? Do you need silence? What are some of your must-haves while writing?

My main requirement is silence. I have to hear the dialogue etc. in my head, and I find music too distracting. I can write anywhere as long as it is relatively quiet. Parts of my books have been created on airplanes and trains, and in libraries, dentist and doctors’ offices, etc. As long as I have a computer or a piece of paper at hand, I can write wherever I am.

Provide new writers with 1-2 pieces of writing advice that will inspire them to keep going when writer’s block hits or publishing seems impossible.

The way I avoid writer’s block is pretty simple: I usually work on two very different writing projects at once. If I get stuck on one, I work on the other one for a while and it “unsticks” me. For example, while I was writing A Buss from Lafayette, a historical novel set in my small New Hampshire town during Lafayette’s Farewell Tour, I was also working on Frizzy, the S.A.D. Elf, one of the modern Christmas stories I write in homage to Clement Moore’s classic poem.

The main character in the MG/YA novel, Clara, is unhappy because she has a stepmother (her late mother’s older sister), who is trying to make her act like a lady. Clara also is a target for teasing because of her red hair. In the elf story, Frizzy, who styles the hair of Christmas dollies, feels unhappy every time Santa takes them away for delivery. (She has something called “Seasonal Affection Distress,” as this happens every single Christmas.) The ways in which Clara and Frizzy deal with their emotional problems are nothing alike, to say the least, but bouncing back and forth between their stories always freed up and fired up my imagination for them both.

(I must comment here that until writing the above paragraph, it had never occurred to me that an important element in both Clara and Frizzy’s stories is hair.)

Of course, when I was writing Liberty-Loving Lafayette: How “America’s Favorite Fighting Frenchman” Helped Win Our Independence, it was a slightly different dynamic, because it was nonfiction history told entirely in rhyming verse. I did, however, couple this effort with writing another elf story, Bizzy, the Bossy Boots Elf. (It occurs to me as I write this that Lafayette and Bizzy share only one thing: both were/are excellent leaders!)

I must admit that I never planned on creating a history in verse. After writing A Buss from Lafayette, however, I knew a lot about Lafayette. Oddly enough, I found that rhyming couplets about him just started popping up in my head. Besides, although Buss tells much of Lafayette’s story, it is done through historical fiction, and Lafayette must share the stage with Clara. Once I decided to write Liberty-Loving Lafayette, I started thinking of it as a companion book for Buss, as in it I tell the complete story of Lafayette’s role in our War of Independence.

I wrote both Liberty-Loving Lafayette and Bizzy, the Bossy Boots Elf during the pandemic lockdown in 2020. This activity proved to be an excellent antidote to the claustrophobia and isolation of that situation.

Thank you, Dorothea, for sharing with us part of your writing journey and advice.

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